Debate of the century? Hofstra (mostly) welcomes the carnival

Welcome to Hofstra-Palooza
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Story highlights

  • Hofstra University will become the first to host presidential debates in three consecutive election cycles
  • Not every student, however, is happy about the distinction

(CNN)If Southern California is "Tailback U," and Penn State is "Linebacker U," then what would you call Hofstra University?

For Stuart Rabinowitz, school president for 16 years, the answer is simple: "Debate U."
    At ambitious institutions around the country, the road to a higher national profile typically runs through the gridiron or a basketball court. Hofstra has taken a different route. On Monday, the Hempstead, New York, school -- one that ditched its football program in 2009 -- will become the first to host presidential debates in three consecutive election cycles.
    "No one expected Hofstra to get it the first time, in 2008," Rabinowitz told CNN. "No one expected it except me. We got it. And when we got it, what we wanted to do was make sure it wasn't just a one-night thing."
    Donors are buying in. A notable few are footing a large chunk of the estimated $6 million tab surrounding Monday night's debate, which was originally awarded to Wright State University. When the Ohio school dropped out this summer, citing budgetary concerns, then-alternate Hofstra stepped up -- and is now set to host what is expected to be the most-watched event in the history of American politics, with analysts projecting an audience of between 80 and 100 million TV viewers.
    On campus, where tests are carrying on as scheduled, homework is still being assigned and parking is always at a premium, the impending circus has met with mixed reviews. Still, there is no denying the interest -- nearly three in four students have applied online for one of the few hundred publicly available seats inside the David S. Mack Sports and Exhibition Complex.
    "We have 8,000 undergraduates, 11,000 students, and 7,500 of them signed up for the lottery to be in the debate hall," Rabinowitz said across campus from where construction workers and engineers raced to import the set and build up the lighting and camera perches. "You can't get 7,500 out of 11,000 to sign up for anything, usually."
    Junior journalism student Kirstyn Brendlen, 20, who will be volunteering inside the media filing center on Monday, is preparing to vote in her first general election contest. To see Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton treading the boards at her school is a dream.
    "This is going to be explosive," she said as her online journalism class got a sneak peak at the debate hall on Thursday morning. "It is going to be insane. I'm really excited."
    A couple of members of the Hofstra Campus Feminist Collective, collecting signatures in the student center, said they were on board too.
    "We're living in an era that we really enjoy stuff that is dramatic," said Maria Zaldivar, a Mexico City native attending attending the university on a student visa. "We love reality shows -- we just love big, loud, dramatic things."
    The candidates will get their first look at the debate hall just a few hours before the public, Peter Eyre, a senior adviser with the Commission on Presidential Debates, told reporters as the hardhats on the floor sized up the stage.
    "This one is special," Eyre said. "We expect a lot of attention domestically and internationally."
    But through a long day on campus, it became clear that, like so much any other places in this messy democracy, there were some impassioned voices of principled dissent.
    "I'm not as excited as everyone else is," Joe Catalano, 21, told CNN as he waited fretfully for a friend. "My parking lot situation is pretty bad out here. I had to basically make my own parking spot."
    So, given the opportunity, he'd be just as happy to snap his fingers and have the whole caravansary shipped out?
    "Snap -- and open up all the parking spots," he shot back. "I'm probably not the only person who is pissed off about the parking spot situation. People who are living on campus and residents now don't have a parking spot because everyone now is just taking everyone's parking spots."
    Sara Castelli, 18, is studying political science. Sitting on the quad with friends, she expressed some concerns about the expense of hosting.
    "My tuition is going toward a debate when other things can be fixed, she said, deadpanning: "Instead of watering the sidewalks, they can water the grass."
    "There's people everywhere, there's no parking," said Haley Joyce, 20. "It's just a lot and I'm kind of over it."
    Presented with the students' concerns, Rabinowitz, the longtime president, argued that the cost-benefit analysis -- even through these "five days of chaos" -- tipped heavily in favor of hosting.
    "There's plenty of parking far away," he said, not for the first time, adding with a wink: "So maybe walking is the problem."